Here's an excerpt from one of the early vaudeville skits performed by George Burns and Gracie Allen:
George: Gracie, let me ask you something. Did the nurse ever happen to drop you on your head when you were a baby?
Gracie: Oh, no. We couldn't afford a nurse. My mother had to do it.
George: You had a smart mother.
Gracie: Smartness runs in my family. When I went to school I was so smart my teacher was in my class for five years.
George: Gracie, what school did you go to?
Gracie: I'm not allowed to tell
George: Why not?
Gracie: The school pays me $25 a month not to tell.
Many in the vaudeville audiences either did believe or wanted to believe that Burns and Allen were just reflexively funny. Great comedians could do that. Their well-rehearsed seeming spontaneity made it appear that they were thinking of the lines as they spoke them.
Of course, those lines had been carefully written. However, comedy writers rarely got any public recognition for their efforts. The writers knew the illusion that the comedians made up the material was part of the job. And they knew a joke was not just in the writing. The line had to be delivered well by a comedian the audience liked playing a character with whom the audience could identify.
There have been many great comedy writers, but Al Boasberg (right, with Marx brothers Chico and Harpo) gets my nomination as the greatest comedy writer of all time. Boasberg, the son of a Buffalo jeweler, was born in 1891. He sold pinky rings backstage at a local vaudeville theater. Soon he began selling $5 jokes to the comedians. George Burns found Boasberg in that theater, and the two joined together. Boasberg wrote many of the early Burns and Allen routines.
Jack Benny bought the first joke he ever told on stage from Boasberg for $25. The comedians of the day were called monologists. Monologists told a few jokes, but most of their act consisted of telling long stories or reciting some famous piece of literature. Boasberg thought Benny worked best just with the jokes. They developed Benny's character as a skinflint and then had the character tell joke after joke. The monologist had become a stand-up comic, and a new art form was invented.
Boasberg was the person who suggested that Bob Hope be given a screen test and then helped Hope develop his character. He told a 16 year old Milton Berle to go on stage and say he'd been accused of stealing jokes, the running gag of Berle's long career. Boasberg wrote the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera and wrote for Buster Keaton's The General. Boasberg rarely wrote the entire films on which he worked. He wrote gags, making the material others had written funny or funnier.
The lines he wrote were often hilarious, but the endurable and vivid comedy characters he created were his most important contribution. Creating those characters required not only a nimble mind but also a deeply subtle understanding of the foibles of human nature and the needs of American audiences.
Groucho Marx called Boasberg "probably the funniest man who ever lived," and Jack Benny called him "the greatest gag man who ever lived."
Boasberg had an odd way of doing his writing. He sat in a bathtub up to his neck in hot water and spoke into a Dictaphone a few feet from the tub. The shower stall had a shelf for some books to which he could refer.
On June 17, 1937 Boasberg met with Benny to work on a new character for the radio show. Boasberg wrote the lines for the incomparable African-American valet named Rochester. Benny and Boasberg shook hands on a new contract and Boasberg went home. He died very early the next morning from a coronary at age 45.
His early death was sad, and so, too, is the fact that Al Boasberg's name and contributions have remained largely unknown by the American public. His endlessly inventive mind, though, lives on through the comedy that American have, across the decades, so thoroughly enjoyed.
A NOTE TO READERS:
My purpose in this column is to identify worthy but neglected American cultural figures and creative efforts, the people, art, books, magazines, movies, music, performances, radio shows, and television shows that have been unfairly forgotten, underappreciated, or overlooked. These neglected figures and products can be from the past or present. I invite readers to comment about the column and to offer suggestions for what forgotten person or effort ought to be included.